“We have not even yet begun to ask what it would mean to let trans children name their own desires and be recognized as entitled to direct their own affairs,” Jules Gill-Peterson writes in her groundbreaking 2018 monograph, Histories of the Transgender Child.
The book attempts to take trans children and their desires seriously first of all by acknowledging that trans children exist, and have existed for a long time. Gill-Peterson looks at medical archives from Johns Hopkins and other institutions dating back to the 1920s and 1930s. This was before the term transsexual was developed in the 1950s. But Gill-Peterson nonetheless found young people at that time who knew they were not the gender assigned to them at birth, and who sometimes lived as their actual gender, with or without parental and medical support.
Trans children are not new, Gill-Peterson insists. They aren’t caused by medicine, or social media, or something special about Gen Z. They’ve always been here. And that means we don’t need to find out how to stop them, or control them, or diagnose them. We need to learn how to let them live.
I spoke to Gill-Peterson by phone. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
So what did life for trans children look like early in the 20th century, before medicalization or hypervisibility?
One of the limitations of my own research is that I primarily focused on trans youth who made their way into research hospitals and other medical settings.
I found that young people, children, but also teenagers were of immense interest to medical researchers, really from the very beginning of 20th century. And I was sort of surprised to find that because, of course, those doctors and scientists weren’t especially interested in helping kids. They wanted to research trans people and intersex people, but only because they had their own agenda. They wanted to answer questions about development, sex, and gender by exploiting vulnerable populations for research. But they certainly weren’t interested in affirming anyone’s gender or in helping trans children transition.
We still don’t know a lot about many experiences of trans kids. But the kinds of experiences I write about in my book fall into two categories.
The first are those who through their own remarkable literacy and precociousness figured out in their own words that they were not the gender they were assigned at birth and found ways to informally live that way..
And then at some point these young people ended up in a doctor’s office, either because they wanted to seek out someone who they thought could help affirm their gender, or because their parents were anxious or wanted to have them assessed by an endocrinologist or psychologist.
But then there’s a whole other group of kids who came into contact with semi-medical, semi-carceral institutions that targeted their gender nonconformity and saw it as a problem. Those institutions didn’t tend to think of them as trans particularly, although it’s obvious that they were trans. And this group tended to be poor kids, kids of color, black trans girls in particular. These are youth who are more likely to end up in the foster care system or the juvenile justice system or be sent to psychiatric state institutions. They were picked up and arrested because they were homeless or had been kicked out of home, or were doing sex work, or were cross-dressing, which was illegal in most of the country until well into the 1970s.
Some young people transitioned without doctors though, right?
Yes. Those are only two types of histories. I tell the story of a young girl who at the turn of the 1930s in rural Wisconsin, with the support of her family, was able to live as a girl, go to school as a girl, join the 4-H club. And then later, as an adult, she was one of the first trans women in the US to try and get access to surgery with some of the first medical professionals who were willing to help with that in the 1940s and 50s.
And so there are these stories about young people living trans childhoods out without any need for medicalizations or adaptations. Children and their families found ways to embrace transness and transition socially.
I think part of what that history can do for us is remind us that not only is the past more complicated than we think, but if we think the present is less complicated, we’re probably missing something important.
Why are trans issues so often framed around or focused on trans children?
Trans kids have always been used as a pretense for getting away from political reality and from material questions. We’re always using trans kids as a way to imagine that we could find out the origins of transness or identity or gender..
And these are things that have really nothing to do with the actual reality of what freedom looks like for a young trans kid who doesn’t have the legal ability to consent to going to the doctor, and who’s entirely reliant on the parents and guardians to look out for them, b who doesn’t have any protections at school. Who may find that their gender policed by school resource officers. Who can’t get access to financial aid and go to college. Who can’t access meaningful employment, who might be doing sex work.
All of these things are no longer hypothetical. They are real material questions.
I think a lot of the problem with the way people come to trans discussions is that they think, we’ve got to sit down and philosophize on what sex and gender mean before we can even decide whether trans people are human.
And of course, it’s often the wishes of those young kids themselves that are the last thing that are on the table. No one’s asking them what they want. No one’s asking them if they know what’s best for them. No one’s asking them if they have an idea of what would make their life better.
You express reservations in your book about models in which young trans people need parental consent to access medical care.
This is based on my research and looking at the last 100 years of how trans children have been treated. And time after time, the dominant experience of trans childhood has been and continues to be not being allowed to direct your own life, not having any political, legal, economic, or social authority to have autonomy over your body.
What really upsets me is that anytime I talk about this, I get attacked and harassed. And the people who do that who reveal just how much they have staked on their need for children to be property, for their children’s gender to belong to them as adults, and for their children to not have any exercise of personal agency.
And that’s something I really worry about. Because at a certain point we have to admit the single biggest obstacle to trans youth’s safety and flourishing is that they cannot access any gender affirming care.
Because their parents won’t help them access it?
That’s a huge vulnerability built into the law, because it presumes that parents will always act in the best interest of their kids. And there’s just simply no evidence that that’s true. Unfortunately, and this is a bitter pill to swallow, we don’t treat children well in our society. We have forcibly made them legally, socially, economically, and politically dependent. They don’t have civil rights, they cannot vote.
Now, I’ve been saying this around these bills to ban pediatric healthcare. Bills to make it illegal in, say, the state of Texas, to declare trans care for children is child abuse.
Well, what is 14-year-old to do? Can they run for State Senate to try and unseat the person who introduced that bill? No. Can they even vote against it? No. They have no formal political or economic means of looking after their own interests.
The legal age of consent for medicine actually changed over the course of the time period that my book covers. It was 21 at the beginning of the 20th century and by the 1970s it had been lowered to 18 in most of the state. Did something change profoundly about human nature during that time period that caused us to lower the age by three years? No, it was a purely social and political decision.
Children can sometimes consent to medical decisions without their parents knowing. Reproductive health, STI testing, in some cases, contraception and abortion. So the whole system itself is arbitrary.
Why can’t a 14 year old make decisions about their body? I just don’t see any rational argument there other than a political one, it’s about the control of young people. And it’s the way in which under American law, children are essentially treated somewhat, not entirely, but somewhat analogously to property.
It’s a huge problem from a practical perspective. I really don’t care about the philosophy behind it. Like, it would be an interesting question for an ethics class. How do we know when is the right age for voting? When is the right age for drinking? Those are interesting questions.
But in this case, I don’t really care about what’s interesting about them, I care about the practical matter. Because until this question of consent is resolved, most trans people just never have access to transition. And that has real consequences. We have the brutal statistics.
We can’t count on parents to take care of their trans kids. Unfortunately, we just can’t. That’s just not the way it works. We are not in a society that understands trans childhood as a welcome and happy thing. We are not in a society that wants to take care of trans kids. And so I think we have to ask how we can give trans youth the tools to look after their own interests.
At the end of your book, you have a section called, “How to bring your kids up trans.” So how do you do you bring your kids up to be trans?
My answer is that we don’t need to tell people how to raise trans kids. Instead we need to support trans kids and listen to them when they tell us how to bring them up.
I think we have not even begun to learn what it means to listen to children in general, but especially trans kids. We continue to see in them the answer to some abstract philosophical question. “Who will you grow up to be one day? What gender will you become after puberty? Will you always be trans? Will you be straight or gay? All these sorts of questions are ways to say, “I need to override listening to who you are right here right now, because I’m so preoccupied about who you will grow up to be that I can’t accept who you are right now.”
That’s the common form of how we relate to children, especially trans kids. And the way to bring your kids up trans, the one thing I would want to say to parents is, learn to know what it would mean to sit down with a living, breathing child in front of you. Learn to say, “I want to hear who you are right now. I love you today. My love is not conditional on my thoughts about who you will be one day.”
It’s so damaging when we tell trans youth to wait, or we tell them we don’t believe them, or that they can’t know who they are. We manipulate them and tell them that what they know isn’t true. We disrespect what they’re telling us, we belittle them, and ultimately we dehumanize them and put an immense amount of strain on their lives.
How could we change as a society to make life easier for trans youth?
We need to really learn to say we want trans children. Not that we want all children to be trans. But when children tell us they’re trans, we are happy. And we are happy with that as an outcome. It’s not a failure. It’s not a mistake, it’s not something we wish we could have prevented. So that when children are trans or nonbinary, or any gender, we simply are okay with that. And we listen to them. And we believe them.
If a child being trans is an occasion for celebration, and love and respect, then I think we’re moving to a world where we treat one another much, much, much better.
I think trans youth are incredibly powerful. And you know, it’s not easy. But I think because of that, because of how much they’re made to suffer and how much they have to strive just to be taken seriously, they know a lot. They really, really do, and they have access to, to a worldview that can help lead us to a more just world. A world that takes care of them is a world that takes care of all of us.